It’s true. I’m a post-modernist. We walk amongst you! OOOoooOOOooo! *spooky fingers*
Okay, but seriously…
One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot this week is the difficulty of having a set of values, beliefs or personal identifications that don’t always comfortably intersect, and that finding a safe space for one aspect of who you are or what you believe will often leave you vulnerable to having other aspects attacked or demonized. Like feminists who dislike trans women and skeptics, trans women who dislike feminists and atheists, and atheists who dislike trans women and feminists.
Well, it’s not exactly a big secret that the skeptic community really isn’t keen on post-modernism and post-modernists, and like to treat them as a bit of a universal punching bag, to the extent that simply describing something as “pomo” is enough to theoretically discredit it. Within this community I frequently see post-modernism straw-manned as some kind of airy-headed, woo-supporting, pseudo-intellectual nonsense that is so wholly committed to radical relativism that it is completely unable to bother taking a stand on anything at all.
That’s a pretty piss-poor, and not very educated or skeptical, understanding of what post-modernism is or is about. Post-modernism was where and how I learned to think, and to do so critically. It taught me to value questioning assumptions, to understand the difference between what I want to believe and what I ought to believe, to understand how perceptions can be distorted and how the process by which we come about our beliefs and conclusions is not always as neat and tidy as it appears, and to look for the unconscious or implicit motives and biases of whomever or whatever is making a claim. In other words, it taught me skepticism.
First, let’s get some things straight, principally our definitions. Because as a general thing, most people who like to throw around the words “post-modern” and “post-modernism” have little to no idea what those words actually mean (whether using them in a negative OR positive light), and there is even less in the way of a general consensus on the matter. In skepticism, as said, it seems to mean some kind of straw-man hyper-relativism mixed in with identity politics and the whole “different ways of knowing” thing, mostly just sort of haphazardly associated with Derrida, Lacan and Foucault. Maybe Baudrillard and Paglia too if they have a bit of actual education in the matter. In art circles it’s often similarly haphazardly associated with either a general “death of the author” / “I can say it means whatever the hell someone cleverer than me says it means, even if the clever folk contradict each other or are totally off the mark from my intent” thing, or with the principle of deliberate obfuscation or dada-esque “weird for the sake of weird” (which aren’t necessarily bad things). In media theory it has a lot to do with McLuhan and the “medium is the message”, the transition from a culture in which text had fixed meaning and was understood as a tool for the transmission of information that could impact a culture into a culture in which the media and structures by which we transmit information modifies the information and becomes more of a socio-cultural factor than whatever the information is or whatever we’re technically “saying” (and now we’re transitioning to something new, and even weirder, that McLuhan might have described as “the consumer is the product is the medium is the message is the consumer”). There are even more definitions in the fields of sociology, information theory, history, gender studies, race studies, literary theory, etc.
It makes things very confusing, and at first glance one’s impulse might be “Fuck it. Too many differing definitions is as good as no definition at all. This word is useless. Let’s move on.” But these all have a basic commonality, which is not in conflict with any individual interpretation of the word, and from which we can salvage the ability to speak usefully on the subject. It’s also very simply contained in the word itself.
Post-modernism is just that which follows, and moves on from, modernism: the inadequacies and failures of modernism, the critique of modernism, or the expansion of modernism.
It’s best understood through historical context. We had the enlightenment, with all it’s enlightenment virtues. Noble is man, knowable is truth, knowledge is virtue, truth is beauty, beauty is truth. Enlightenment proceeds to modernism, which was largely about rejecting the trappings of tradition, the elite, the old ways and old structures, old rules, moving fiercely towards the future, a future filled with utopian promise if we can successfully rid ourselves of all the weaknesses holding us back. Modernism is Nietzsche and “The Rite Of Spring” and Guernica and Artaud and Marienetti and The First World War (to end all wars!) with it’s innovative mustard gas, u-boats and aerial warfare.
The Second World War, proving that the first one did not end anything, amongst other terrible truths about who and what we are as a species, terminated the capacity for our culture to collectively believe uncritically in the values of modernism, and the underlying enlightenment principles on which modernism was based.
There were a whole bunch of things that happened then that really put us in our place, that collectively humbled the ever living shit out of humanity. Nazism, along with forever casting a shadow over nationalism, called into doubt whether there was any virtue at all in ideology and utopian thought (and for many, and at least as a touchstone for me, suggests the incredible darkness and capacity for atrocity that can come from certainty in one’s beliefs). The Holocaust, along with raising difficult questions about the meaning of race, ethnicity and bloodlines, also suddenly offered a glimpse at the terrible horror of dehumanization, and what systematic efficiency, unquestioningly following orders, and seeking “final solutions” for social problems can lead to. The rise of Stalinism and the corruption of Communism into brutal autocracy demonstrated how you can’t depend on Hegelian dialectics to work themselves out into utopian “synthesis”, that you can’t impose scientific and philosophical structures and abstract solutions onto human behaviour and expect it to solve everything. The atomic bomb raised grave questions about scientific and technological progress, and whether these are to be considered virtues in and of themselves, or whether they need to forever remain tethered to acute awareness of consequence. Its use raised the question of whether the ends ever truly justify the means, and if sacrificing a “few” innocents to save millions of soldiers is an ethical answer to such a problem, and whether any such answer could ever be ethical. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité had been used as justification for colonialism, foreign occupation and racism. The aristocracy was long since dead. Avante Garde and it’s military undertones now felt very suspect. Millions upon millions had been killed in what historically constitutes a single flash in time because a few Great Men had Great Visions. Genius meant destruction as easily as it meant progress. We’d rejected our stuffy old traditions because it was holding us back, only to find the future we were eagerly anticipating and proudly driving towards to be just as dark as the past we’d left behind, and found that there was nothing whatsoever inherently noble about a human being. At least not in the sense we’d previously understood.
In short, the whole of human ambition and value had been exhausted. We had nothing left but a partially ruined world and deeply uncomfortable questions. We were back to the drawing board.
Post-modernism, as simply as it can possibly be explained, was just the attempt to figure out where to go from there. How to build a new humanity and new values in the wake of what we could no longer uncritically accept.
An interesting way of putting it is the “Exhaustion / Replenishment” dynamic articulated by John Barth in the context of literary theory. If existentialism and Samuel Beckett represent the exhaustion of the previous values, and no longer having any certainties to cling to in our post-war, post-modern world, only this desolate bleak emptied literary landscape (as Adorno famously put it: “After Auschwitz, all poetry is barbarism”), then Jorge Luis Borges is the answer. When you have no certainty left as to where to go, you can either wallow in the paralysis, or you can revel in the plurality. A beautiful garden of forking paths. You can’t know which way is the right way to go, but that offers you the freedom to choose any path, or choose them all.
This process was reflected in the post-modern philosophical tradition. While we had people like the existentialists examining that wasteland of lost values, and contemplating the total absence of certainty and certain meaning, and how to cope, we also had people like Foucault trying to find new ways of understanding and reasoning, of dealing with acceptance of the fact that all positions are inherently subject positions, and conditioned by a context. To survey the plurality of positions and understand The Truth not as a singular goal but as a process and dialogue, a discourse.
This is not the same thing as absolute relativism. Nor is it incompatible with skepticism. They are, in my mind at least, easily harmonized, and deeply so. Although certain individual post-modern thinkers did indeed assume a position of absolute relativism, or the idea that there is no truth at all, that’s not the position of post-modern thought in a general sense. Post-modern thought simply teaches you to be careful to acknowledge the biases and assumptions you’re bringing to the situation, how the context will affect your interpretation, awareness that there may be unconsidered variables at work, that other perspectives are worth considering, and to recognize the risk and danger in certainty, or losing sight of the possibility you’ve got things wrong.
None of that teaches us to abandon critical thought, or stop thinking there’s any point in weighing one argument above another. It’s only the shallowest, most unsophisticated readings that would interpret the overall thrust of existential and post-modern thought to be “well, everyone’s, like, you know, entitled to their, like, opinion and stuff, dude”. Instead, the questions post-modernism encourages us to ask are of deep importance to being able to develop as truly critical thinkers. It teaches us to consider factors most people miss, and to be able to apply skepticism and critical inquiry inwardly, as well as to the overall context, instead of limiting it to the analysis of a particular presented idea. Consider the presentation of the idea as well, and who is doing the presenting, and your own interpretation. It creates a much stronger and healthier skepticism, not a “but on the other hand, but on the other hand, but on the other hand” paralyzed octopus. At no point does post-modernism, as a movement, definitively assert that one hand can’t be more right than the others.
The way I think of it is that at the very least we can all agree that something is going on. Let’s call it “the world”. In order to think about it and talk about it, we carve it up into little discrete conceptual pieces and assign representative signs and language to those pieces, so we can arrange and rearrange them in ways so as to look at all kinds of different possibilities and angles, and compare and contrast our interpretations with those of other people. Sometimes one person’s perspective will clash with another’s. And sometimes other people will have carved it up differently. Sometimes people will be using entirely different sets of signs, and entirely different structures of thought, in order to work with it and figure out what the something that is going on is, and how it’s going on. None of us are quite in the position to assert absolutely that the way we’ve got it figured is definitely, totally the best and right way (and sometimes doing that leads to bad, nasty things), but we can get close, we can figure some stuff out, and striving towards understanding it and getting some idea of what’s going on, even if we’ll never quite know for sure, is still totally, completely worth it. And still, at the end of the day, no matter how much difference lies between people’s views on what’s going on, there’s still something going on. There’s still a world.
Acknowledging a multiplicity of perspectives, and learning to apply the same doubts to your own as you do to others, does not mean abandoning the ability to think or to talk or to question. It just means refining our means so we don’t prematurely or accidentally decide we’re “right” about stuff we could be very, deeply wrong about. Accepting that you might be wrong when you’re very probably right is a bit inconvenient and annoying, but believing you’re totally right when you’re actually wrong is fucking dangerous.
Now, sometimes post-modernism and certain interpretations of post-modern theory are used to shut down dialogue and thought and questions. I’m not going to “no true scotsman” this and claim that’s not real post-modernism. But I can rightly point out that it isn’t the whole of a massive and multifaceted entire era of thought and art, and that it is very possible to critique and reject that form of post-modernism without turning post-modernism itself into a whipping boy. Hell, I do it all the time.
Take for instance my recent run-in with Be Scofield. Be’s argument, more or less, was that it makes me an awful, imperialist, ethnocentric, evil person, colonizing the beliefs and perspectives of others, if I hold the religious beliefs of other cultures to the same standard of critique I hold my own (or critique a principle that occurs across diverse cultural contexts, such as faith). At this point, post-modernism ceases being a tool for critical inquiry, ceases encouraging thought, questions and dialogue, and instead is used as a means of shutting all those things down, a cudgel with which to force people to shut up. But here’s the thing: while I accept and embrace the teachings of post-modern thought in terms of the danger of certainty, and the importance of turning critical inquiry towards your own beliefs and assumptions and the socio-cultural context in which they occur or were formed, I do not accept being told that that is the only thing towards which I can direct critical inquiry. As I’ve mentioned before, my atheism is not about any special criticism of religion. It is about holding religious beliefs to the same principles to which I hold all beliefs. I will not uncritically accept (or offer deference to) any idea or concept, regardless of the cultural context in which it occurs (“self” OR “other”).
In fact, it is the post-modern principle of understanding the danger of certainty that is the underlying foundation on which I base my criticism of religion. Religion is not “another way of knowing” or “another way of thinking”. It is beliefs insulated from thought and critique, and based upon faith. Faith is really just a particular form of certainty, but worse, is one that claims itself above ALL question. Not just that you think you have all the answers, but that everyone else doesn’t even get to ask questions.
When we take post-modern principles such as that we need to be wary of our position, our context, and question our values and assumptions, and not imperialistically reject other perspectives or coerce others into ours, and avoid assuming the rightness and supremacy and rationality of our position just because it’s the one that happens to make the most immediate sense for us… when we take these principles and start using them as a means of defending the “right” of others to not bother employing them themselves, shutting down our capacity to engage in critical dialogue and oppose other dangerous “certainties”, to start using it all as a means not of remembering to question things but as a means of deciding some things are off limits for questioning, that is to lose sight of why any of this was valuable in the first place, or why it was needed. That’s when post-modernist thought stops being thought.
If people like Be were alive when the tragedies that forced us into post-modernity first occurred, do you suppose they’d defend the right of “other cultural perspectives” like Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany to not be “imperialistically” challenged or questioned by The Allies? That their “way of knowing” was just as valid as those who would question their dangerous imperialism?
There’s no question religious ideas are imperialistic in nature. They have evolved to propagate, convert others, and remain entrenched- by offering comforts and psychological rewards for belief, and exacting sacrifices and psychological costs for rejection.
But this is a defense of post-modernism, not a critique. My point is that the kind of relativism we’ll encounter where people insist that we can’t question religion or woo on the basis that our “Western” scientific principles are merely biased cultural constructs is, while legitimately being a particular interpretation of post-modern ideas and values, is not necessarily representative of the principles on which post-modernism itself was based, or what many of us value about it, and do not reflect the whole. Post-modernism itself has always been about critical thought and skepticism. A genuine, educated understanding of post-modernism, and analysis of the ideas and motives behind it, makes that clear.
Yes, there are defenders of alt-med and religion and woo who use silly, shallow interpretations of post-modernism to shut down dialogue and thought. But there are also skeptics who use equally silly, shallow interpretations of post-modernism to reject a highly important and valuable set of philosophical principles and traditions that have been extremely important in the lives of many people, and their intellectual development. There are alleged skeptics who use silly, shallow interpretations of post-modernism to avoid questioning their entrenched and irrational biases and assumptions
A little piece of me gets a little more angry and bitter at the skeptic movement every time I see someone who clearly doesn’t know much about the subject dismiss post-modernism as being all about fluffy “all ideas are equal” nonsense like Scofield’s. Because for me, post-modernism is exactly why I’m here in the first place. Not all of us are skeptics because of science and rationalism and enlightenment principles. And frankly, some of you could benefit from a little less dismissal of this school of thought, and a little more time learning about it, and learning to question and recognize the flaws in your own intellectual processes.
The occasional over-zealous relativist no more invalidates post-modern theory and the importance of questioning your own perspective and cultural context than did 18th century imperialism invalidate the value of rationality and reason. All human ideas can lead to fuck-ups when accepted uncritically. It doesn’t mean those ideas are innately without value, only that we need to be careful. And knowing all human ideas can lead to fuck-ups when accepted uncritically is a big part of what post-modernism is all about.
I could be wrong, though.
But don’t you imperialistically tell me so!